The [Absolute] Beginner's Guide to Being A Dungeon Master (5e)
Are you the awesome kind of person who yearns to craft stories and adventures for your friends? Then welcome to the beautiful world of being a D&D dungeon master! It can seem intimidating to get started as a DM. Therefore, we’ve compiled a handy guide to go over the absolute basics of what you’ll need as a DM.
What does a Dungeon Master do?
A dungeon master is responsible for a number of things during a game. To boil it down, the two most important roles for you are Narrator and Referee.
As the Narrator, you craft the world of the game and all of the other people in it who aren’t your players. It’s up to you to describe the way a building looks, portray an evil villain in a scene, or present a humble farmer seeking help. Everything in a Dungeons and Dragons session is relayed through the DM - except for the things that your player characters come up with.
With all the chaos that your players will bring, your other crucial role is to be the Referee. It is up to you to set the boundaries and mechanics of the world.
As Referee, you’ll need to make decisions like the following examples:
- Is a 17 enough to hit a charging goblin?
- Do you roll an Acrobatics or an Athletics to cross this treacherous river?
- What kind of saving throw should a player roll when they eat a poisonous berry?
These are the kinds of rules that you will have to establish and enforce during the game. Keep in mind, though - every table, session, player, and DM is different! You don’t have to know all the official rules set out by Wizards of the Coast. You just have to create and track rules based on the needs of your group.
With those two titles in mind, let’s dive into everything you’ll use as a brand new dungeon master.
Grab a Dungeon Master’s Guide (or Alternatives)
Although you don’t have to follow the Dungeon Master’s Guide perfectly, it can be a useful resource for a first time dungeon master. It goes over the basic rules and mechanics of running the game, and also inspires a lot of interesting ideas for your campaign or adventure.
One downside to the Dungeon Master’s Guide is that it is an entire book. If you’re looking for something you can read more quickly, we recommend getting the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set.
The Starter Set comes with two essential supplies we’ll be discussing in this article: dice and an adventure. Also, it comes with a condensed version of the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s a short read that is easy to teach players and dungeon masters how to play D&D.
And if you’re nervous about running your first D&D session, don’t forget about Google! If you or a player are unsure about something, you can just type it into Google and instantly receive answers to your question.
For those who are tech-savvy, you may also want to check out websites like Roll20.net and DnDBeyond.com. They have built-in digital dungeon master resources like rules, stat blocks, articles, digital dice, and more.
Find–Or Create–An Adventure
When you have a basic understanding of the game, you’ll then want to explore what kind of game you want to run. Something more comedic or more serious? An epic adventure spanning multiple sessions or a short one-shot quest? Will there be a lot of magic in the world or none at all? Even if you plan on improvising most of the game (which is a totally viable thing to do!), you should still have a basic idea of the vibe, setting, and main objective of the session/campaign.
Now keeping that in mind, you can start to look at pre-written adventures or create your own. For pre-written adventures, Wizards of the Coast has many different adventures and settings available in their publications. But if you want even more selection, check out DMsGuild.com which offers D&D content by independent writers.
For a beginner dungeon master, it can seem intimidating to craft your own tales. However, we promise that it’s not as daunting as it seems! Remember your roles: narrator and referee.
As long as what you’re writing has a story, characters, and rules around the game and your world, then everything is fair game! There’s no “wrong” way to be a DM, as long as you’re fulfilling those objectives.
Feel free to change the narrative of a pre-written adventure, or create an entire world for your players to explore. Alternatively, you can improvise everything based on what your players do. Over time, you’ll develop more of your own tastes and decide what play style suits you best. For now, we recommend trying it all and seeing what’s most comfortable for you.
How to Find Players as a new Dungeon Master
Anyone who plays D&D will tell you that finding and scheduling players can be one of the more challenging parts of the game. Luckily there are lots of ways to find players, and lots of players to be found! Again, it’s all about finding a group that feels comfortable to you.
Dungeons and Dragons has surged in popularity over the past few years. More people have heard of it, and a lot more people are open to trying it. Oftentimes, there will be people within your social circles who are interested in playing and you might not have even guessed it! Try dropping it into conversation with your friends, family, work colleagues, etc and see if there’s any interest there.
Another way to find players is to use the vast pool of people on the internet. The two websites we mentioned earlier, Roll20.net and DnDBeyond.com, both have tools to help match players and DM’s together.
On Roll20, you can post a game and mark it as Looking for Players. People who are looking for a game can browse through different games available, and then apply to the ones they’re interested in.
Similarly, DnD Beyond has an online community on the app Discord. When you join the community, there’s a channel called Looking for Players. Users can create a text post with their game information, and players can browse and find games to play in.
However you decide to recruit your players, we suggest making it clear up-front that you are a new dungeon master. There’s no shame in it, but it will help frame expectations for the players so that everyone can be satisfied with the game.
Supplies You'll Need as a New DM
- A Notebook - Whether you’re a digital-based DM or a pen and paper person, we strongly suggest having a notebook (or a note-taking app) nearby during your game. There’s a lot for a DM to keep track of (names, locations, hit points, etc), so writing stuff down is absolutely crucial.
- Dice - No D&D game is complete without dice! Dice determine the outcomes of the game, whether something is a critical success, failure, or somewhere in between. While we prefer having a physical dice set (which you can purchase here for as low as $3.85/set), you could also opt for using a digital dice roller. There are many free ones online, and both Roll20.net and DnDBeyond.com have them built-in.
- DM Screen - It is not necessary to have a DM screen, but it sure makes you feel special! Having something to block your notes and dice rolls from the players is great for adding that sense of mystery to the game. Both the D&D Starter Kit and Essentials Kit from Wizards of the Coast include a beautiful DM screen that also references basic rules of the game.
Other Accessories You May Need
Everything we’ve listed so far are the basic tools for a beginner dungeon master. But there’s a whole range of accessories that a dungeon master might use:
- dice towers and trays
- maps (whether pre-printed or drawn on an erasable mat)
- miniatures for players and villains
- tokens for conditions and markers
- spell or item cards
- 3D terrain and buildings
These are all part of the dungeon master experience but it’s up to you to decide which of them suits you and your game.
As long as you have the basics, you can now embark on your adventure as a first time dungeon master.